Publicity. A couple of media takes on Rancho

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 Gate
The San Francisco Chronicle's on-line sheet
Oct. 24, 2008

 

By Novella Carpenter


I sat at the bar with writer Philip Garlington. Me, a glass of red wine, him vodka.  Garlington, who looks a bit like a white-bearded Hemingway, needed a stiff one: Doctors at the Veterans Affairs hospital had just sliced off pieces of his face. Just pre-cancerous skin, but bleeding is never fun. We were talking about money. Or more like, how not to spend money, one of Garlington's favorite subjects (I was buying).
 
 
"A tent to Yosemite, to the $2.50 per night Camp Four," Garlington said, describing how he had spent a few weeks of his winter living on the cheap by camping at a national park. "I had a Mr. Heater propane stove in my tent — and in the morning that was enough to get me dressed," he said.  "A few hundred yards away, the coffee shop."
Garlington spent his winter days snow-shoeing, hiking, and reading the New York Times, available at the park store.
 
 
I'm always looking for ways to save money but still have a good time — and Garlington, an expert on low cost living, turned out to be a mentor. He hasn't had a full-time job in years, yet he manages to support a car, buy a book or two, and pursue his main passion: travel.
 
 
Garlington started out as a source. I was writing a profile about a San Francisco man who had fled the rat run and lives off the grid in the Nevada desert, partially inspired by "Rancho Costa Nada: the Dirt Cheap Desert Homestead," a book written by Garlington.
 
 
In the late 1990s, Garlington bought ten acres in Imperial County for $300 and for awhile lived the hardscrabble life of a desert rat. "Rancho" is a gritty how-to guide that outlines how he survived in the desert sans electricity or plumbing. (Haul free water from a park, live in a crudely constructed hogan made out of salvage, enjoy meals like peanuts and jam on a rice cracker.)
 
 
I had heard he was tough to deal with, an ornery former newspaper reporter who seemed to have authority issues. So I e-mailed him with trepidation. Garlington wrote back immediately: "I'm amazed anybody else voluntarily would try the Costa Nada lifestyle. The subtitle of the last chapter in the book is an explicit warning, 'Don't Do This.'"
 
 
It turned out that Garlington ended up being a part timer in the desert.  When it got too hot, or too cold, or too windy, he decamped for a better climate.   The mountains of northern Californina, or Mexico, or even Europe, but strictly on the cheap.
 
 
Many people fondly remember a youthful summer spent youth hostelling across Europe. Garlington, because of his circumstances ("an open calendar but a flat wallet"), still travels like an 18-year-old. Instead of youth hostels, the travel-loving Garlington backpacks a tent.  He has a motto for traveling on the cheap in Europe: no roofs, no restaurants.
 
 
A year or two ago, he spent two months touring around England, Spain and France, where he only spent $30 a day, including transportation.
 
 
"I tented  the whole time in England," Garlington said. "I went during the off season — September — and it rained the whole time."
 
 
Never mind the rain, Garlington packed the rain gear, and was delighted to find out the British Camp and Caravan parks ($6 per night) included free hot showers and washing machines and dryers. He bought termed out sandwiches (clearly Garlington is no food snob) at the market instead of eating in restaurants.
So what about  fun? In England, he hit the pubs.
 
 
Though the cost of a pint is through the roof, Garlington discovered something called the Pensioner's Pint ("a local brew that tastes like mucilage but at about half the cost of Guinness.")
 
 
The evening saloon talk entertained , and during the day Garlington spent mornings in tea shops, reading the opinionated British newspapers. Then he would head out for the day's walk to the next town, admiring the countryside and getting exercise. If he had to take public transportation, he would choose the bus over the more expensive train. This is how he got around in the south of France and Spain as well.
 
 
Friends sometimes said, Phil, this sounds awful. Eating cold food inside a minuscule tent in a downpour. What fun is this?   "So stay home."
 
 
Garlington has always been a drifter. "I had no real skills," Garlington said .  So he became a journalist. He worked for the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Examiner, the Orange County Register and even, for a year, the National Enquirer. ("Home of the Whoppers paid well, I made about $70,000 in today's dollars.") Even though he got to manufacture a story about space aliens landing in Texas, and received a HeroGram from the publisher for a piece on Jerry Lewis, Garlington didn't linger at the Enquirer.
 
 
"I'm as unambitious as a Buddhist," Garlington said. "I'd rather have leisure than income. I want plenty of time to ramble or lounge, and don't wish the constraint of a schedule or an overseer."
 
After moving on from the desert, he found creative ways to live on the cheap. He still doesn't pay rent — besides spending some time at the Rancho and camping in national parks, he also house-sits for some friends who have a second home in Sonoma County.
 
 
His rules for house-sitting are genius. He brings with him a kitchen in a box so he never uses the host's stove, pots or dishes, which means he doesn't have worry about cleaning, or putting stuff back in the right place or breaking anything. He uses a checklist so he won't burn down the house. He does some chores, but stays mostly true to another slogan: "I'm not handy on purpose."
 
 
Free rent is Garlington's principle tactic to save money. Other ways include not having cable or DSL (he uses wi-fi at the coffee shop or the library); not paying for utilities (he doesn't have a refrigerator, air conditioner, clothes dryer or a heater); and driving a compact car in the right hand "Patriot lane" at 55 mph.
 
 
As we talked, I realized Garlington could just be, by virtue of his sheer cheapness, the most eco-sensitive person I knew. Is that why he's doing this living on the cheap thing?  He denied it.
 
 
"My study is not to better the planet through reducing my share of smudge, although it's true my thumbprint is small," he said. "My goal is to avoid compunction by not working very much for others."
Before we shoved off from the bar, I asked Garlington about his medical coverage. Besides the VA, does he have a health plan?
 
"My health plan, widely recommended, little followed, is to brush and floss, avoid the usual suet and brine of the American diet, and get in a walk."
 
 
And with that, he polished off his drink, shook my hand, and made for the door.
 
 
A citizen of Oakland, Novella Carpenter reports on food, farming and culture. Her work has appeared in Mother Jones, Salon.com, Edible San Francisco and other publications. Her memoir about urban farming is forthcoming from Penguin Press. She keeps a blog about city farming at www.novellacarpenter.com
 
 
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 The resort of last resort
Writer gets along just fine in desert getaway
Carl Nolte, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, November 2, 2003
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(11-02) 04:00 PST Smoke Tree Valley, Imperial County -- Phil Garlington is what Huckleberry Finn would have been like had he lived to be 60: a free spirit and former promising young man whose hair has mostly departed, someone who loves life but hates wage slavery, who lives in the middle of nowhere in a desert so barren the military uses it for bombing practice.
He lives on 10 acres of his very own land, in a shelter he built himself, a place he calls Rancho Costa Nada. In the lingo of the desert -- where there are also places like Rancho No Gotta and Rancho Elbow Greaso, Costa Nada means "It costs nothing. ''

Garlington, whose roots are in the Bay Area, believes that places like the rancho are an option for those temporarily ousted from corporate life, people who have lost a battle, but not the war, "somebody who wants to take a few months to regroup.''
"It's not for everybody,'' he says. "It's an option, particularly if you don't like work.''
For some in the Bay Area - and other major metropolitan areas, for that matter -- there has always been a romantic appeal in making a new life in the wilderness, in Alaska or maybe the California desert, and building your own place, like a pioneer.
 
 
Unlike his great-grandfather, Garlington had few pioneering skills -- he barely recognized the business end of a hammer -- but he knows how to find land cheap and how to build a homestead on it. He bought the rancho for only $325 and slapped together what he calls "a hogan,'' basically a shelter from the wind, for an additional $300.
There are several disadvantages to life, Garlington-style. The rancho is in the Smoke Tree Valley, 53 miles from the nearest traffic signal. It is reached only by traveling more than 17 miles of unpaved road, some of it as rough as an old washboard, some deep in sand.
 
 
"It is basically Alka-Seltzer,'' Garlington says. "Nothing will grow here.'' There are snakes, insects, searing summer heat and winter winds so fierce they can blow over a boxcar.
 
 
There is no electricity. The nearest neighbors, an irascible former Marine and his leathery wife, live three miles away. One's social life is limited.  Sex?  Garlington says it’s like water. You have to go to town for it.
The advantage is that one can live like a land baron for practically nothing.  "I traded money for leisure,'' says Garlington, who winters at the rancho and travels in the summer when the Smoke Tree Valley is blasted by the sun and temps reach 120 degrees.
 
 
Garlington is not crazy. It's just that he's a 19th century man in a 21st century world. The son of a college president, Garlington in his youth was simultaneously student body president at San Francisco State and editor of the college paper. Glib, witty, literate, admired by women, Garlington lived a life rich in adventure.
He has been a sailor, a writer of  a published novel and some unproduced screenplays, a mosquito killer, a mail carrier, editor of small town newspapers, a reporter on big city dailies. He can fly an airplane and knows his way around cyberspace.
 
 
He has even written a book, "Rancho Costa Nada,'' chronicling his desert adventure.
What he can't do is hold down a job. "I am not a good employee,'' he says.  Last year, he was summarily fired as the editor and sole staff writer at the Palo Verde Valley Times, a weekly newspaper in the dead-end town of Blythe, a metropolis of 21,000 souls -- 8,000 or so are inmates of two state prisons -- on the California-Arizona border. Though it is a pleasant-looking place, no one would mistake Blythe for paradise. The average high temperature in July is 108.5 degrees, and miles of empty desert ring the town.
 
 
Garlington had come to Blythe from the Orange County Register, where a bad attitude cost him his job. So Blythe seemed to be the final stop in a long newspaper career. "I was a big frog in a small pond,'' he says of the nine months as the town's editor. But an old problem resurfaced.
Garlington cannot stand to take orders from his superiors. "The mere happenstance of holding the rank of 'employee' made me feel servile in the presence of a perfectly pedestrian, usually well-meaning dimwit who happened to be the boss,'' he says.
 
 
Garlington was fired for insubordination -- and not for the first time.
 
 
"I was pretty near broke,'' he said. His only resources were a 401(k) retirement account, and his ace in the hole -- 10 acres of desert land, 45 miles southeast of the Blythe city limits. He had bought the land four years before at a tax auction.
 
 
The purchase grew out of a newspaper story he wrote on auctions of worthless land. The auction process sounded interesting, so Garlington put in the minimum bid of $100 himself on 10 acres somewhere in Imperial County. Whoever owned it had not paid the taxes -- $18 per year. So the county auctioned it off.
There was some desultory bidding, but Garlington got the 10 acres for $325, complete.  "Just fooling around.''
"You'll never find it,'' said the lady at the Imperial County tax office who handed him the deed. But she hadn't considered the wonders of the Global Positioning System; with a cheap GPS, Garlington and some pals found what would become the rancho.
 
 
He had a good job as a reporter in Orange County then, and the Rancho became a weekend retreat, good for skeet and target shooting and beer drinking with his pals. But eventually fate -- in the form of being fired from two jobs -- intervened and Garlington decided that the Rancho Costa Nada would become his home port.
A problem: He had not so much as taken a shop class. And whatever he built had to be cheap, as well as easy to construct. He came up with the idea on his own. A naturally curious man, he went to the library and did research on basic construction.

 
The solution was to build a shelter of sandbags faced with salvaged lumber. This was to keep out the wind. He bought used 100-gallon water tanks for $10 each. There were also assorted other materials: a cot, some plywood and camping gear, like a Coleman stove. He and another settler in the desert - - a man Garlington calls "The Hobo'' -- rented a truck to haul the material. It took a couple of weeks to build the rancho.
Garlington gets free water from the city park in Blythe and hauls it out to the desert in his car, a three-cylinder Geo Metro that is barely capable of making it over the washboard roads. He uses sturdy marine batteries for power. "I am my own utility," he says.
 
 
The Rancho Costa Nada -- three buildings of various sizes -- is not to be confused with your usual suburban rancho. Though Garlington refers to one building as a "hogan,'' another as the "ramada" and the sanitary facilities as "the spa,'' the rancho is both plain and simple. It is also homely as dirt.
The valley is a strange place; sere and surreal. One night it is peaceful and quiet as the dark side of the moon. The coyotes yip and howl at dawn. The next night is made hideous by the sound of Marine helicopters, flying low, and by warplanes shrieking in to fire rockets into the gunnery range. The bombs land some distance away from the valley, but the bombs and rockets light up the sky.
"A light show,'' Garlington says, laconically.

 
Does Garlington have advice for other prospective settlers? "Well,'' he said, "If you are not broke, you are probably not going to do this.''
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